Thursday, June 2, 2011

Surprise

Once released from the hospital, Alex proceeded to ONI’s labs to have his new implants tested. They ran his translator through a handful of tests, playing back several recordings. It worked well, even though the tests didn’t really stress the translator. They verified that the Whisper was booting and making contact with his brain as it should. The technician who was working with Alex seemed somewhat relieved when he declined the opportunity to test it.

ONI issued him a variety of hardware and drilled its use into him. Most visibly was a translator yoke. It was a scarf-like, self-contained hardware package that one wore over the shoulders. They were common, inexpensive and shouldn’t draw attention. Humans had been using them with the Tslao for several decades. They gave him a handful of peel-and-stick one time use translators as well, in flimsy plastic packages with pictograph instructions. The battery would run down in about six hours and they were highly directional. Important considerations.

The interface for the Whisper was currently a jury rigged mess. There was a nylon web harness that kept a small electronics package pressed against his back over four of his near-field data ports. Two meters of cable snaked out of the plastic bulge, ending in a pair of sensors glued to a headband. Alex was assured they were working on a more refined version, but was silently glad they hadn’t built it to look like Tslao antennae. He didn’t think he could pull those off.

The tech also covered more of what the doctor had been talking about. Keeping a low profile with a million dCred worth of augments. There was a concern that he might wake up in a bathtub full of ice with his head wrapped in tape, or simply get killed. Alex did not like the sound of either of those. He didn’t have much choice in the matter anyway - it was made clear that he would be wearing some sort of external translator whenever he used his internal.

With his new accessories in hand, he took his leave. He had a few days of R&R lined up and was looking forward to not having anything that looked like work in front of him.

He called his parents to see if it the next morning was a good time to drop in. It was. He probably could have shown up unannounced in the middle of the night and it would have been fine. He emailed Carbon to let her know where he was going, packed a bag and hopped the late shuttle planetside.

Clear sunny skies and a gentle breeze met him when he returned to Earth for the first time in almost two years. It was nice to feel the real sun on his face, all of the varied smells of Earth in his nose. The Dyson sphere had been good, coming out of months living in a tin can. Now that he was back on Earth, there was no way it could compete. Not for him, anyway.

His parents were very glad to see him. They wanted to know everything and he very patiently explained he couldn’t talk about it. That did not stop them from launching into a two hour long inquiry about current events... Everybody knew about the artifact, which the military had claimed they had towed in system from deep space. Everyone except Alex, of course.

Alex laughed and shook his head, seated in the overstuffed chair across from the couch where his parents both sat. “I’ve been so busy with quarantine, debriefings and these mountains of paperwork... Haven’t had time to keep up with the news.”

His father grinned, “it figures they would make you work more when you got back than when you were on a mission.”

“You have been getting rest, Alex? You’ve been back for months now, you haven’t just been working every day?” His mother gave him an inquisitive look. He had called a few times, but hadn’t been able to get away until now.

“I have been working a lot, I wanted to get everything done while it was still...” He petered off, thoughtful for a moment as he reconsidered his words. “Just to get it all done and taken care of. I’ve been taking a few days here and there. Relaxing, showing Carbon around the station and all.”

They looked at him, confused. “Carbon?”

“Oh, uh.” He laughed, nervous for a moment before he regained his composure. “Shipmaster Tshalan. We’re on a first-name basis now. It’s a sign of respect.”

His mother seemed particularly pleased with that. She’d always been a bit interested in aliens. “That’s wonderful. Do you suppose we’ll get to meet her?”

He was relieved by that question, that they might find some acceptance from his parents. “You might, yes. She’s taking care of some work now that a Tslao carrier is in system. Last time we spoke, she wasn’t sure when she would be done.”

“Well let her know that I’d very much like to meet her, if she has the time. She seemed very nice, even though we never got to speak in person.” His mother referred to when she was using him to pass notes to Carbon, before the attack on the Kshlavo.

“I will be sure to. She didn’t know what to make of your messages at first, but she grew to appreciate them.” At least, she grew to appreciate the sentiment, well after the fact.

“Good.” She turned to his father, patting him on the knee. “I’m going to start dinner, why don’t you call Peter and see if he can come over too? Bring his family if he can.”

“Sure. Excuse me.” They both got up, his mother bustling off into the kitchen and father heading towards the nook with the comm by the door. Alex picked his glass of lemonade up and pointed to the deck, his father nodding in acknowledgement as he tapped the comm screen.

Alex sunk into a chair and kicked his sneakers up onto the rail. The breeze was freshly filtered, none of the usual particulate matter in it today. They must have had the electrostatic spire array out in the Pacific turned all the way up. He could see the top of the North San Francisco arcology across the bay. The massive building arched over the top of Old San Francisco, giving it a physical link to the South arcology.

He let his mind drift, staring out into the pale blue sky with a handful of fluffy clouds riding the winds. It was good to be back, but he didn’t think he wanted to stay for more than a day or two. He wanted to be back on the artifact, back with Carbon... He wanted to be doing something. It would be good to see his brother again, though.

He sat there doing nothing but idly tapping his foot on the rail... it didn’t feel like it had been very long before the door chime went off. Peter lived in San Francisco South, the better part of an hour by tube. Still would have taken thirty by air.

He listened to the faint sounds of talking through the glass, the insulation layer muffling everything. His father slid the door open and popped his head out. “Your friend is here. Brought company, too.”

With the door open, he could clearly hear Carbon and his mother discussing niceties. It was deeply surreal. He took a sip of lemonade and pondered that before standing and stepping back inside.

For a moment, Alex wasn’t sure what he was seeing. It carried over onto his face, eyebrows knitted as he took in Carbon in what he assumed was traditional Tslao clothing. Deep blue flowing pants that hid the legs and a black shirt under a bright blue brocade jacket with silver detail. The long jacket sat half way down her shoulders, leaving the thin stripes on the back of her neck visible.

Her company was wearing the standard lightly armored encounter suit. He - Alex figured it was a he from the body shape - was differently colored. Sort of a dark ruddy brown with sharp grey eyes. He stood rigidly by the door, definitely military.

Alex made a mental note to ask if the fur coloration meant anything important. Carbon noticed him, her eyes lighting up as her smile widened. “Pilot Sorenson. It is very good to see you again.”

He wasn’t a pilot any more, but he liked the title much more than ‘desk jockey’ or whatever it was he officially did now. He didn’t miss the formality of what she said, either. “Lan Tshalan. It has been too long. What brings you here?”

“A small matter. The Empress has requested an audience with you.”

That didn’t strike him as a small matter. He’d never had royalty request an audience with him before, so maybe it was. Either way, this was a hell of a surprise. “Uhm, yeah, sure. You could have just sent me-”

“The Empress has requested an audience with you immediately.”

“But... My brother is coming over.” He hesitated and his brain locked up, less sure of what to do now that it was clearly a demand. “I was going to have dinner with him and the family.”

She had leaned in towards him as he was talking, eyes intent and eyebrows raised, disbelief and a hint of fear on her face.

“Or, you know... I could probably just go meet the Empress. Not every day she wants to talk to me, I guess.” He rubbed the back of his neck and looked to his mother. “If that’s alright with you guys?”

“This is a bit of an occasion, but I suppose it isn’t very often royalty comes calling. Just hurry back, ok?”

Carbon smiled, relieved. “Thank you. I promise I will return him to you as soon as is possible, I do not expect he will be gone a full day.”

“Suppose I should change...” Alex gestured at his shorts, already feeling a bit under dressed.

She looked him over, nodding slowly. “Yes, that would be good.”

Alex excused himself, taking refuge in the second bedroom to swap clothes. He fished the translator out of his bag and slipped it on as well before he returned to the living room. They said their goodbyes, exchanged hugs and the usual before stepping out into the hallway.

Carbon and the soldier she didn’t bother to introduce him to conversed in low tones. Alex hit the button on his yoke as he flipped his Immersion Translator on, considering this a perfectly good time to give it a try in a real-world environment.

“...ship is prepared?” He caught the end of Carbon’s question.

“The pilot has been notified we are returning, princess. It will be ready to depart when we arrive.”

Alex stopped, his face screwed up in confusion. Carbon noticed he wasn’t moving and looked back at him. His voice was a higher than he would have liked, very close to cracking. “Princess?

6 comments:

  1. OK, that was a bombshell. Whoa, how did he not pick that up on mind merges? This explains Carbon's reactions to any mention of Aunty. Good job! Excellent read.

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  2. Princess?!

    Heh... I think Alex and I might have said it in the same tone. But he wasn't surrounded by coworkers.

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  3. @archnemesis_goldenhair: Thanks! I've been sitting on that for like... six months. He didn't notice anything during the links because humans don't have the deelybobbers and can't go poking around. Carbon had to deliberately show him everything.

    Platt: Hah, yeah... coworkers do change the mood.

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  4. I'm back for the notes:

    It was just a recording This reads like the tech was a recording. Maybe, 'they just used a recording'.

    He emailed Carbon to let her know where he was going very considerate. :)

    he returned to Earth for the first time in almost two years I wanted a little more here. He was so happy to see blue sky and grass in the alien artifact, is seeing the real thing different?

    It was good to see them again I know what you mean, but it reads like the clouds are happy to see him.

    train of inquiry about current events They're asking him, or Alex is asking them?

    You’ve been back for months now Has he not seen his folks at all since he got back?

    it’s a sign of respect. Ha! It's a sign of something.

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  5. More notes:

    Do you suppose we’ll get to meet her? I appreciate Alex's cool cam during this conversation with his mom, but a little reaction from him would be nice here. Does this make him think his folks will be accepting?

    The breeze was freshly filtered Filtered?

    nothing but idly tapping his foot on the rail two buts in the same sentence. could cut to "he sat there idly tapping his foot on the rail..."

    muffling everything beyond comprehension could cut 'beyond comprehension', muffled implies it.

    for a moment watch repeats, this is in two sentences in a row.

    She looked him over Did she just sneak a look at his legs in front of his mom?

    far more incredulous than it needed to be. I think his tone is just incredulous enough! But you could cut this part and end on "and was very close to cracking." incredulity is already established. :)

    Awesome cliffhanger. I can't wait to see how his audience with the Empress goes.

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  6. @J. A. Platt: Updated, as you may have noticed. Clarified, edited, expounded upon.

    Alex is always considerate! To people he likes, anyway...

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